Why "platforms" like Tumblr are a totalitarian threat

In tech's nightmare world, our livelihoods are dependent on the opaque machinations of Silicon Valley executives

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published December 22, 2018 2:00PM (EST)

"A People's History of Silicon Valley" by Keith A. Spencer (Eyewear Publishing/AP/Mark Lennihan)
"A People's History of Silicon Valley" by Keith A. Spencer (Eyewear Publishing/AP/Mark Lennihan)

Adapted from “A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy,” by Keith A. Spencer, on sale now from major booksellers. © 2018 Eyewear Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

On December 17, when microblogging site Tumblr instituted its nudity ban, thousands of sex workers — many of whom did cam-work remotely for clients — spontaneously lost a major source of income. There is a particularly Kafkaesque echo to the social media site’s decision: Certainly, no one likes feeling like a cog in the vast machinations of an incomprehensibly large, uncaring corporation. And yet, such a sensation has become the norm among Silicon Valley’s platforms, who have amassed such immense power over our lives that their ivory tower decisions can have sweeping repercussions for millions, spontaneously and seemingly randomly thrusting any one of us into poverty overnight.

Long before Tumblr’s C-suite decided to go full Protestant, similar situations occurred at other digital platform sites. When San Francisco–based Uber lowers the base fare for its global workforce of millions of drivers, a worker in Mumbai suddenly suffers. And when the engineers at Facebook in Menlo Park decide to toy with the algorithm that determines who and what you see in your Timeline, the reduction in visibility is felt by a small family business in Cairo.

There is something innately absurd about this undemocratic, totalitarian arrangement: it can make one’s success (or failure) feel utterly arbitrary, as if we were all mere puppets driven by randomly-changing algorithms. And yet, for the corporate imaginations who set the decrees, there is a Machiavellian logic at work driven by — what else? — profit.

Social media corporations like Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram are interested in keeping us glued to their sites, regardless of the social repercussions. One might argue that all companies attempt to get consumers habituated to their products; yet social media’s influence in our lives is personal and intrusive in a way that few industries have ever been before. "Your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone [who were] updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive," digital ethicist Tristan Harris explained in a CBS interview.

Nowadays, social media literally categorizes, manages, and controls our relationships with friends and confidants. In the process, it affects what we see of their lives, the emotions we feel and receive, and the information we are fed. In this regard, the social media industry is far more intimate than the newspaper industry; more manipulative than the beauty industry; and more precise in its targeting than television. And now, for many bloggers, marketers, newspapers, businesses and — yes — sex workers, it is also the hand that feeds them.

Why, then, do these sites all undergo spontaneous algorithm changes that alienate vast swaths of their userbase? Again, the answer has to do with eyeballs and thus profit. Facebook constantly refines its algorithms to keep users on its site as long as possible, and solicits feedback "so that you spend more time using the service — thus seeing more of the ads that provide most of the company’s revenue," as Harris said. This is standard practice for social media companies. In the recent case of Tumblr, insiders hint that the company wants to keep itself from liability in the wake of the draconian FOSTA/SESTA Act, which criminalizes those who host anyone who could be potentially involved in child trafficking — an intentionally broad category that has inadvertently criminalized much mutually consensual sex work, too.

Uber drivers, online magazines and sex workers all have in common that they might feel as though they are pawns in an apparatus controlled by an unseen elite. When Facebook suddenly changed its Timeline algorithm last year, thousands of news sites saw their traffic drop dramatically — resulting in a sudden dip in advertising dollars. Facebook made the decision because its industrial psychologists figured out that people stay more engaged (read: spend more time on the site) if they see their friends' posts, rather than the posts of news sites or magazines that they might follow. Of course, as a for-profit, unaccountable corporation, Facebook can do as it pleases, with no regard for the hundreds of journalists suddenly out of a job. These sites and apps may be virtual, but the social harm and misery they inflict is real.

Aside from vulnerable sex workers, journalists have long been the canary in the coal mine for engineer tinkering on said platforms. Franklin Foer, the former editor of the New Republic, quit his job in protest after witnessing the magazine's new owner — a Facebook co-founder named Chris Hughes — capitulate to the social media companies, whom Hughes believed they were reliant on for clicks and therefore revenue. In becoming dependent on social media companies, Foer argues, the New Republic — like many other media outlets — essentially devolved to epitomize the opaque values and beliefs of the social media gatekeepers who controlled its revenue streams. The situation at The New Republic "became a small parable for journalism," Foer told me in an interview. "Journalism was coming to depend much more on both Google and Facebook." Foer argues that this is dependence is dangerous inasmuch as "Facebook’s values and Google’s values end up becoming the values of media that depends on them."

Foer’s observation from years of working in journalism is that the utopian rhetoric of Silicon Valley is often used as a rationale to explain why their business decisions are inherently good for humanity. This circular reasoning helps shield the tech industry from criticism. As Foer explained to me:

[Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg] has described Facebook [as] being like a government. It sets policies. I think that he has generally had a vision of where he wants to lead his users. [The] idea of sharing, [is] so deeply embedded in Facebook; [Zuckerberg] wants the people who use Facebook to become more sharing individuals. This is consistent with one of the big values at Silicon Valley, which is transparency; Silicon Valley believes in the religion of transparency. So one way in which [Zuckerberg] justified Facebook is that it causes people to be more transparent. They expose more of their lives to their friends and to their family, and they expose their views, they expose where they go to holiday, and that this is going to make us ultimately better human beings.... I mean, really, in my view, they have a set of ideals, but they also have a business model. They end up reconfiguring your ideals in order to justify their business model.

So something like video is a good example. Facebook has decided recently that video is the thing that’s going to make them a lot of money. So their algorithm then elevates video. If I open my Facebook feed, it shows one video after another. A lot of it is just silly and kind of garbage that you don’t understand why it’s there at the top of your feed. That’s their decision. It’ll come up with some ex post facto rationale for why video will make us better human beings.

You can say this about many of said platforms, that they use the self-serving utopian rhetoric of Silicon Valley to essentially justify their technocratic, undemocratic decisions. Ultimately, the social and economic repercussions of the tech industry’s algorithm changes radiate out across the globe.

This is all to say that we’ve reached a point where the power wielded by said platforms has few analogues in history. An errant piece of code or an intentional Facebook Timeline change has an instant, damning effect on so many lives. Such an arrangement speaks to the totalitarian nature of Silicon Valley: the eggheads who know best make the rules, and the rest of us — whether magazine, sex worker or Uber driver — are just grist for the digital mill.

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Adapted from  "A People’s History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy,” by Keith A. Spencer, available now from major booksellers. © 2018 Eyewear Publishing.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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